Do software engineers earn more than MBAs?
Last week, PayScale.com earned significant press attention for its list of the College ROI Rankings — an effort to figure out which schools provide the most lifetime earning potential.
The top five are all, not surprisingly, very tech heavy:
- Harvey Mudd College
- SUNY – Maritime College
So, that settles it, right? This list is nothing more than a beat-you-over-the-head reiteration of something that everybody has known for over a decade now... if you know how to code, then you are going to make a lot of money.
Right? I mean, it’s obvious... isn’t it?
Well, that is until you read the fine print by clicking on the “Methodology” tab. When you take the twelve seconds to skim the preposterous methodology, you find a piece of fine print that so laughably undermines the analysis, that you wonder why the list exists at all:
Only employees who possess a Bachelor's Degree and no higher degrees are included. This means Bachelor graduates who go on to earn a Master's degree, MBA, MD, JD, PhD, or other advanced degree are not included.
For some Liberal Arts, Ivy League, and highly selective schools, graduates with degrees higher than a bachelor's degree can represent a significant fraction of all graduates. This is not a joke.
If you are a doctor, lawyer, or corporate executive with an MBA, then you are factored out of the analysis altogether. This basically means that the only Ivy League or Liberal Arts alums being counted in the study are the English, Anthropology, and Sociology majors who harass you on the street corner with their clipboards and PETA shirts. Alright, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture.
Here’s what you actually need to know about college, degrees, coding, and all of the fun ingredients that go into the “success” game...
The people who get rich are not the engineers. The people who get rich are the thinkers who know how to code or can pay someone else to code.
Do you think that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Bill Gates write the world’s finest code?
No. They know how to think, and their ability to code helps them bring those ideas into existence. And as soon as they have a net worth north of $125,000, they can pay someone else to code for them.
Neither my co-founders nor I had a net worth north of $125,000 when we set out to launch Bleacher Report. But the four of us combined did have such a war chest, and we used it to hire smart people who could code for us...
We provided the “thinking." And that was pretty much it.
The original business plan that we co-wrote — from which we hardly strayed and absolutely never pivoted during the five years of our journey — was based on a framework that I learned in my Competitive Strategy 401 class at Middlebury College in Vermont.
It was a class that most San Francisco founders who are engineering grads would laugh at... a bunch of “business school theory” with diagrams and charts and frameworks and other pie-in-the-sky jargon.
We used all of that “useless pre-MBA crap” to figure out how we could build a Web property that was strategically different from Sports Illustrated and ESPN, that they themselves could never replicate. We thought about “outdated classroom concepts that sound fancy on paper” like value proposition. I even applied a rough Porter’s Five Forces analysis to it, a framework so ancient that it pre-dates the Macintosh. Do you know why our startup succeeded and 99 percent of startups fail? It was because of “barriers to entry” and “supplier leverage” — two of the five forces.
We had a great idea, and we hired great coders to build it.
That part — the part where we hired coders — would have been a lot easier if we had known how to code on our own. It would have spared us a round of financing, which in turn would have made us millions of extra dollars in the end.
Oh well. C’est la vie.
In hindsight, I genuinely wish that I knew how to code. It would have been well worth it on several fronts, as measured not only in money, but also in heartaches avoided. Coding is a valuable skill, and one that I plan to instill in my children at an early age.
But it is far from being a pre-requisite for starting a great company. It is a complimentary skill.
Knowing how to think critically and address real problems is the actual pre-requisite for starting a great company (or adding tremendous value to a company that you didn’t start).
And most of those fancy business frameworks or economic models exist precisely to help organize your thinking around a problem that you want to solve.
If you can’t think critically and organize your thoughts, and all you have is a computer science degree, then don’t worry. You will still end up with gainful employment. You will make an above-average income for the next 20 years, but probably a lot less than the top JD and MBA graduates that everybody in Silicon Valley likes to joke about, you will probably also find yourself dealing with ageism right around the time your salary plateaus. Because, well, Silicon Valley is amongst the most sexist, ageist, judgmental places on the planet...but that’s for a different article.
Oh, and since time is not on your side, skip the whole college part and just teach yourself how to code by the time you are 18: That’s the best approach to being an engineer.
Those who want to be more than an engineer, I suggest you invest in yourself. Learn how to build sophisticated Excel models to stress test your business idea. Read an introductory Economics textbook or some of the books on your friend’s MBA syllabus. The degree itself may or may not be worth it, but the key business/finance/econ frameworks are very valuable.
So, with all due respect to Payscale.com and their ridiculous methodology, I propose that young people do the exact opposite of everything their study encourages.
Getting an engineering degree is just about the biggest waste of time ever. Learning to code is valuable. Learning how to think is valuable. And, yes, all those wacky business and finance and economic models that you plug into Excel...they are valuable.